Written by therapist Madeleine Mears
Think back to the last argument you had. Whether it was over something fairly minor, or a huge situation, think about the words used and the tone of the conversation. Was it calm and controlled? Or did it escalate to yelling and tears? Chances are that every person has been in at least one heated, intense argument where voices were raised, and feelings were hurt. These situations can be devastating and leave lasting effects on both parties. Read the sentences below and see how many resonate with you, whether you have been the one saying these sentiments, or you remember them being said to you:
“You can’t just come home late without telling me.”
“You’re wrong about that.”
“Why don’t you tell me when you’re upset?”
“You never listen to me.”
Common mistakes in communication
What do all of these statements have in common? They are YOU centered. By using a sentence with direct, second person language, the statement can quickly become accusatory. By using YOU, the speaker is implicitly placing blame on the other party. In fact, there are three common mistakes in communication that lead to arguing. They are (1) statements about the way another person feels, (2) questions that mask intentions and for which there is no comfortable answer, and (3) questions that ask for justification of feelings or behavior. For instance, the sentence, “Why don’t you tell me when you’re upset?” both use YOU language and ask for a justification for the other person’s feelings. Statements like these can trigger the other person to become very defensive and in turn, will use accusatory language back. This can quickly escalate to unhealthy arguing.
How do we communicate effectively?
So how do we communicate effectively where you are able to express your feelings without placing blame or escalating to an argument? The answer is simple: use I. Your voice and feelings are both powerful and valid. It is so important to be able to express your emotions in a healthy way. This is done by using statements reframed as an I statement. When a situation arises that causes unpleasant feelings in yourself, the goal of a sensitive conversation is not to make the other person feel bad, but more so, it is about resolving a problem. I statements are a succinct way of communicating your feelings without placing blame.
“I” statement guidelines
Using I language is more than literally just using the word, “I”. It is an entire posture to take on when in a sensitive conversation. Some guidelines to follow to effectively use I language are:
- Starting every sentence with, “I”
- Instead of masking your feelings behind a question, make them known
- Be conscientious to ask what the other person is feeling without asking for justification of those feelings
- Focus on the feelings and actions present in the current moment and do not generalize to the past
- If you don’t know what you are feeling, assert you are willing to find out instead of simply saying, “I don’t know”
Reframing YOU to I
Let’s take the examples from the beginning of the blog and transform them into I language! While there may be multiple ways to do this, here are some suggestions.
“You can’t just come home late without telling me.” to “I feel worried when you don’t tell me you’ll be getting home late.”
“You’re wrong about that.” to “I don’t feel that way.”
“Why don’t you tell me when you’re upset?” to “I feel a little uncomfortable because you seem tense to me this evening. I’d like to know if something is upsetting you.”
“You never listen to me.” to “In the past I haven’t been able to get through to you. I hope I can make myself clear this time.”
These guidelines can feel clunky and a bit awkward initially. However, if used correctly and with the right posture, they can lead to an intentional dialogue where both people feel validated and seen. It is a terrible feeling to have when someone doesn’t understand you. We may not even realize it, but the reason for this could be that you don’t know how to effectively describe your emotions. As I always tell my clients, the other person can’t read your mind. As such, it is so important to be able to effectively communicate with your loved ones in a way that does not escalate to arguing.
If you find yourself in a cycle of arguing or poor communication, reach out to Optimum Joy where a qualified therapist can help you transform your communication patterns!